Review: ‘Hands on a Hardbody’
Note: I saw the show in previews, so it is likely to change before opening.
A musical based around ten people who have to keep one hand on a truck at all times (in order to win said truck) seems set up for failure. How do you stage that? What kind of choreography can you do? How is the audience not going to get bored? Luckily for ‘Hands on a Hardbody’, now playing at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson theater, that’s not the show’s biggest problem. In fact, they rise to the challenge with flying colors. With lighting and movement they make you forget about the constraint. Instead they are plagued by different hindrances — coming not from the conceit, but its plotting and creators.
In many ways ‘Hands on a Hardbody’ is a ‘A Chorus Line’ through a Texan lens. Theater fans will immediately recognize this format, in the constant presence of all the characters, each one getting their backstory song and the common dream that they share. There are moments throughout that embrace this history and it results in the show at its best. Fortunately for ‘A Chorus Line,’ they didn’t have to declare one winner at the end.
Unfortunately for ‘Hands on a Hardbody,’ the audience knows there can only be one winner. We’re supposed to hope it’s JD (Keith Carradine), the older somewhat-sick man struggling with his marriage. He’s given ample stage time and focus in the beginning, but not enough is done to enforce him as the protagonist. So instead your allegiance shifts throughout the show to each of the different - and far more likable characters. By the end, as they each fall off and arc in their own way, the clear protagonist of our story is unclear. Perhaps, this is a fault of book writer Doug Wright and song writers Amanda Green (Bring It On) and Trey Anastasio (Phish*) for sticking too closely to the documentary on which its based?
*Where as ‘American Idiot’ was very clearly a Green Day musical, ‘Once’ was a Swell Season musical, and ‘Jersey Boys’ a Frankie Valli musical, this is not a Phish musical. Fans of Phish will surely be able to appreciate the show (the songs listed below and the orchestrations especially), but this is much more a mainstream book musical that just so happens to be co-written by Trey from Phish.
Regardless of this major structural issue, ‘Hardbody’ has a handful of beautiful songs. Particularly in its first act, ‘I’m Gone,’ ‘Stronger,’ ‘Burn That Bridge,’ and ‘Joy of the Lord’ are powerful, entertaining numbers that do the double duty of moving the audience while shading the characters. Things become more inconsistent in act two where plot takes over. Hunter Foster gets a huge 11-o-clock ballad but the highlights are scarce elsewhere. It all falls apart with the finale “Keep Your Hands on It” which bashes in the show’s central metaphor (the truck is the American dream, keep your hands on it. Get it?!) over and over again to laughable results**.
**I had a very similar reaction to ‘Bring It On’s final number, so I’m starting to think this has something to do with Amanda Green. Green’s lyrics while moving at times can often lean to far into kitsch.
The show has a lot to say about following your dreams and the current state of America. All of which are interesting and told through appropriately styled music. Hopefully it can iron out the problems before opening.
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